Obviously, no one wants to make a bad decision or make a mistake. Yet if we consider the things in life that have shaped us the most, there are likely more than a few failures and tough lessons on the list. However, we rarely allow employees the benefit of this "fail forward" environment; the freedom to feel fully empowered to experiment and take risks.
Most leaders have difficulty letting go because of trust issues, image management motives, and/or a need to protect people from the deflating failure experience. However, to be a fully effective leader we are required to delegate and trust employees to take responsibility and accountability for their own decisions. This is a significant distinguisher between management and leadership. Are you directing or developing?
Rest assured that if you have an engaged employee who fails, no one will feel worse about it than they will, so your feedback through it will be vital. A borderline employee will need the post-mortem to collaboratively sift through the experience to find the valuable lessons they can leverage to improve their performance. A poor performer will tire of the consistent communication, expectations, and accountability, and will likely pick up their anchor and move on.
After all the recovery plans have been created and implemented, it is time to schedule the meeting to do a debrief. Here are some ideas:
- Let them talk. Think coaching, not instructing. Ask questions that allow them to process what happened and self-discover any warning signs they may have missed. A lesson learned personally has far greater power to change than accepting someone else's truth.
- Don't play the blame game - and stop them from playing it to. If it really was their decision that led to failure they must own it, but you also need to ease up on your urge to lecture or say I told you so. If others truly were involved in the mistake or poor decision, allow this fact to be acknowledged on one condition. They must also acknowledge what they personally could have done to influence other's behavior to have achieved better results. How can they be more successful working with and through others going forward? (see our article on being coachable)
- What lessons have been learned - what can you both take away from the experience?
- Moving forward - how can you help them re-establish credibility or trust? Identify what resources may be missing to assist them.
- Remind them of past success - you don't want to make them fearful of risking again. Build their confidence. Remember that they will beat themselves up worse than you ever will. You can verbally communicate a safe environment, but if your actions at any point contradict this message, there will be no growth in performance or personal ownership. Check in intermittently with your staff to ask how effective you are being in delivering a consistent message of safety in risk taking.
The only way to delegate more is to trust more. The only way to build trust is to give people room to prove themselves, including the risk of failing.
Keep the conversation objective, make it safe for them to try new things and grow, and if things don't go as planned, ask what contingency plans he/she would have put in place knowing what they know now. How can you both use that information for the next time? Don't stop providing autonomy because of failure; be there to give them what they need, just when they need it. Someone somewhere gave you an important chance to learn and grow. Be that someone for your team.